Shifting the Frame: Teaching Feminist Psychologics

By Bolak, Hale | Transformations, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Shifting the Frame: Teaching Feminist Psychologics


Bolak, Hale, Transformations


This paper outlines my thinking on how to teach feminist psychologies, with the goal of sharing with others some knowledge that might help those who teach in this area. My discussion includes some general observations as well as some specific readings and pedagogical suggestions. I focus on two productive tensions that I believe need to be named early in the course: the pull between universality and particularism, and the tension between recognition of women's oppression and the goal of empowerment. The overarching problematic is how to shift the framework of mainstream psychology for students and how this work relates to the intellectual currents and theoretical shifts in the larger field of feminist studies. In this context, how students experience such a course and some pedagogical challenges also become relevant. Thus, I also present some ideas for incorporating feminist pedagogy in teaching psychology.

The pull between universality and particularism

Expanding the frame/shifting the center. Historically, psychology has participated in a construction of gender that "conflates gender and sex, defines gender as difference, and sees gender as a fixed quality of persons rather than a manifestation of context" (Bohan, 1992, p. 40). Based on an essentialist epistemology, gender has been understood to stand for agreed upon qualities that are sex-specific and intrapsychic, residing within the individual, like fortune in a fortune cookie. Teaching about the social construction of gender has provided a productive push to pay more conscious attention to diversity and complexity of experience along different aspects of identity. For example, we now know not to assume "gender salience" for all groups of women (Espin, 1992). The challenge for feminist psychologists in the last decade has been to maintain a healthy skepticism towards broad generalizations about women (and men) on the one hand, and to keep expanding the frame to incorporate complexity and diversity across race, ethnicity, sexuality and class on the other, with the ultimate goal of re-visioning the central tenets of psychological theory such as individualism and universalism, and engendering more fluid and relational understandings.

We probably each have our own stories about how we came to see issues of diversity in psychology. Mine started with a frustration during my undergraduate years in Turkey over Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning. I remember feeling very indignant that groups of people from developing countries failed to score at the highest level of moral reasoning. And when I continued my doctoral work in the U.S., my socialization in a different culture had me approaching academic knowledge critically, looking for a fit between what I intuitively knew and what mainstream theories presented as universal. This was before cross-cultural psychology and feminist psychology gained the recognition they have today.(1) It was after reading Carol Gilligan's (1982) incisive critique of Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development in the early 1980's, that my career in psychology took a decisive turn. The alternative ideal of "relational" thinking posited by Gilligan offered a convincing challenge to the developmental goal of "abstract, autonomous" thinking argued by Kohlberg, and forced me to look closer at how women and Third World peoples were being compromised in psychological theory across the globe. Reading Gilligan sparked my passion in feminism and gave me the motivation I desperately needed to stay in psychology. I started to look for women in whatever I read. Looking for cultural diversity within feminist psychology and considering feminist and multicultural pedagogies were projects that became important soon after. Later on in the paper, I also address how my own positionality as a woman from a Middle Eastern Caucasian background may have informed how I have tried to address issues of diversity as well as student resistance and backlash.

Like many of my contemporaries, my aims in teaching feminist psychology shifted partly as a function of the evolution of the work in feminism. …

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